LOS ANGELES — There was no calamitous final scene or epic fourth-quarter meltdowns, no freak occurrence or debilitating in-game injury. The Los Angeles Clippers watched the clock tick down in their 104-91 Game 7 loss to the Utah Jazz — and consequently, their season. They exchanged the usual post-series pleasantries and hugs with their conquerors, then walked through the northeast tunnel at Staples Center, heads down.
The Clippers dropped their final game of the 2016-17 season not because they couldn’t surmount mental hurdles, but because they were outmatched tactically.
Chris Paul, who entered the game with a 50-40-90 (field goal percentage/3-point percentage/free-throw percentage) on 27.3 points and 10 assists per game, found himself bottled up by a Jazz defense they played up on the Clippers’ bread-and-butter high pick-and-rolls.
“I think they did a pretty good job of being up in the ball screens,” Paul said. “They were shrinking the court on us.”
For two weeks, the Jazz keyed in on many of the Clippers’ favorite actions, showing them multiple looks. Though Jamal Crawford managed to sizzle in isolation, Utah continued to meet J.J. Redick as he curled off screens trying to move to his left. Up front, Derrick Favors punished the Clippers from midrange and on the glass while Rudy Gobert was absent, as he was in Games 1 through 3 and most of Game 7 with foul trouble.
In the end, the Clippers simply couldn’t overcome Utah’s corps of strong, lanky wings in the series. Paul’s heroics aside, the Clippers, down Blake Griffin, never established a rhythm — not that Utah was any great shakes. This was a slog of a seven-game series won by the team with a greater tolerance for muck and a greater knack for resourcefulness.
For the sixth consecutive season since Paul arrived in Los Angeles to join Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers won greater than 60 percent of their regular season games, yet failed to reach a conference Finals. Redick called the end of their season on Sunday a “recurring disappointment.” Told the Clippers had been down this road before, Paul interjected, “Yeah, too many times.” Clippers coach Doc Rivers grumbled that the Clippers’ obituary had been written repeatedly over the past three months.
As Paul Pierce shoveled the remaining belongings of a Hall of Fame 19-year career into white garbage bags, and equipment assistants cleared what was left behind in players’ lockers, that Clippers postmortem can now be performed in earnest. To a man, the Clippers and their head coach declined to address their collective future in postgame media availabilities. The prospect of detonating the roster has hung over the Clippers with each postseason failure in recent years, yet with Paul, Griffin and Redick each an unrestricted free agent this summer, a hypothetical question is now an imminent one.
Those who play the “Should the Clippers blow it up?” parlor game unwittingly ignore one key facet of the conversation: The choice is not entirely the Clippers’. Free agency is just that, with veteran players free to choose their employers for the 2017-18 and beyond. Even if the Clippers believe, as Rivers has often inferred, that this core group still represents the team’s best chance to contend, the players in question might feel differently, particularly following yet another underwhelming final postseason result.
Thanks to a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement, Paul could earn upward of $200 million over five years should he remain with the Clippers. The Clippers also hold an advantage in any bidding war for Griffin or Redick, but the probability of their return to the Clippers is less certain.
Griffin’s time in Los Angeles has been particularly unfortunate, with each of his last two playoffs ending not by elimination but to injury. Earlier in the season, Griffin suggested that the outcome of any decision about where to ply his wares next season would be informed in large part by the Clippers’ fortune this spring. Without that information, any speculation was merely that.
With Sunday’s lost, the information file is now complete. Griffin will now have nine weeks to decide whether a change of scenery, system or culture would enable him to write a new chapter in his career. The same holds for Redick, whose coveted sharpshooting will be a strong commodity on the open market.
Though they’re temperamentally different, Paul, Griffin and Redick are each inordinately competitive. The primary question that will influence their respective decisions: “Where can I win?” In recent years, the Clippers have been a top answer on the board, even with all the heartbreak — and in some part because of it. When Paul and Griffin went down in the same game during the first round of the 2016 playoffs to Portland, the team took a mulligan. The collapse to Houston in a close-out game that would’ve vaulted them to the conference finals defied all earthly probabilities. Ditto the odd finish the prior year to Oklahoma City in the conference semis.
But at a certain point, a team must examine its composition and process to determine whether there are common currents that are holding them back. It’s not as if the Clippers haven’t been exploring those mysteries, yet they still haven’t come to any satisfying conclusions as they confront their summer of reckoning.
Said Redick, “Some teams aren’t meant to figure out those answers, I guess.”